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The Ethics of Etiquette

It is of course nearly the ‘silly season’, but the amount of attention paid in recent days to Carolyn Bourne’s critical email to her future daughter-in-law Heidi Withers about her manners is remarkable.

Most of the rules Bourne mentions concern the table manners of guests:

1) Don’t declare what you will and will not eat.

2) Don’t say you haven’t enough to eat.

3) Don’t start before everyone else.

4) Don’t take extra helpings without being invited to do so.

(In case you’re interested, the others require one to send handwritten cards of thanks, not to lie in bed in the morning, not to insult one’s future family in public, not to attract attention to oneself by telling others of one’s medical condition, and not to behave brashly (e.g. by getting married in a castle).)

In reading the email, I was reminded of a passage in R.M. Hare’s fascinating ‘Philosophical Autobiography’ (Utilitas 2002), about his time as a prisoner of the Japanese:

‘When we were on our way north to work as coolies in Thailand, crammed into box cars and receiving almost nothing to eat, there drew beside us a very smart new air-conditioned Thai train. Behind one of its plate glass windows, framed as if in an aquarium, was a young Japanese officer, eating an excellent meal with an air of exquisite refinement. When I had travelled in India, the poor must sometimes, from their vantage point, have seen me myself doing the same. I have never since then been able to behave nicely at table’.

One of the several things Bourne has failed to recognize is that, even though politeness is a virtue, it is not fundamental. It is part of benevolence, involving, as Henry Sidgwick put it, ‘the expression of general goodwill and abstinence from anything that may cause pain to others in conversation and social demeanour’ (The Methods of Ethics, 7th edn., 253).

If Withers’ behaviour was really as Bourne suggests, one can imagine it must indeed have been mildly annoying (though I don’t really get the rules about hand-written cards and the castle – those, I suspect, are peculiar to the Devonian upper-middle-class Bourne is – somewhat vainly — hoping Withers might wish to join). Her reaction, however, is what one might expect from someone who has been violently assaulted. Moral indignation and blame are scarce commodities, worth preserving for the things that really matter.

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6 Comment on this post

  1. Anthony Drinkwater

    I must have missed something, because your post was all new to me.
    Yes, it certainly seems likely that RB and HW are going to have an interesting marriage, but at least Mrs B senior has said written what is on her mind (yes, it would have been a lot more polite for her to have said it face-to-face , I know) rather than making Essex-girl jokes behind HW’s back.
    And yes, it’s « the silly season » already. And Henry Sedgwick is correct, at least on this point on etiquette. And, it’s good to remind us that although politeness is a virtue, it is not fundamental….
    But aren’t you doing the same thing as Mrs B senior in promoting the story on the blog ? What next : a scoop on the Emails of the newly-married descendant of the Schlessweig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg dynasty ?
    If I chose, I could read the Daily Telegraph myself (oh no, in fact I see it’s the Grauniad – CP Scott must be turning in his grave).
    Sorry if this seems impolite.

    1. Thanks, Anthony. No, not impolite at all! I do think that some in the media peddle these stories under misleading headings. So the journalists on the Guardian who've written on the story really did just want to re-present it, but had to do so disingenuously, under the heading of the email's going viral, etc. The point I was trying to bring out was that there is a question about how best to proportion moral sanctions to their objects. That question is rarely discussed, even by utilitarians (who — if they understand their theory properly — should see sanctions themselves as governed by the utilitarian principle). But it's important. As well as working out which things are blameworthy, we should decide which things are unblameworthy, and focus, as I suggested, on the things that matter.

  2. Anthony Drinkwater

    Thanks for your reply Roger,
    I agree with you on the ethical bean-counters who call themselves utilitarians, but I will take issue with you on the question of "things that matter" :
    If I look at the "Top Posts", I see that amongst the top 5 are two stories concerning sex and violence. If I take what I imagine to be an objective view on this, I would say that these are things that matter a lot less than the effects of financial whizz-kids and greedy bankers on the quality of life of many hundreds of thousands of human beings, (which subject features very little on the Practical Ethics blog).
    So even the philosophic élite choose for themselves what matters to them.
    And, second point, in a certain sense it's understandable : we all define our own universes. Mrs B defines hers in terms of an ideal family, so it's natural for her to complain about the behaviour of her prospective daughter-in-law, because her world is limited to that subject.
    And, final point, isn't it too much a counsel of perfection to state that we should only""focus on the things that matter", particularly as the things that matter vary from individual to individual ? Who defines what things matter ?
    Sometimes I despair…..

    1. Thanks, Anthony. These are excellent points. A few quick responses. What matters to philosophers, even those connected with the Uehiro Centre, isn't necessarily the same as what matters. So I agree with you on the importance of the ethics of finance and economics. Indeed, what any person thinks matters isn't the same as what matters. Each of us of course has to decide for ourselves what matters. But we may be mistaken, as was Mrs B. Philosophical reflection is, I believe, the best way to decide these issues, though even that may lead one to despair (as it did Sidgwick, who thought as hard as anyone ever has done about what matters).

  3. Michael Blatherwick

    It strikes me that it is perfectly reasonable for Bourne to consider that she is being wronged by her daughter-in-law to be: the actions of the latter undoubtedly breach Sidgwick's definition of politeness as ‘the expression of general goodwill and abstinence from anything that may cause pain to others in conversation and social demeanour’. Whether this warrants a reaction that could similarly cause pain or offence is unclear, but I would be inclined to say that it would.

    What I absolutely can't see is how you have it that Bourne is unreasonable in writing a private correspondence because she finds somebody's actions impolite, but that you are justified in declaring in public that her assessment of and reaction to the situation are out of proportion with the wrong done. Surely, the worst she herself can have done is being impolite, but even then only to Withers and not to you, thus (as Anthony says) placing you in the same position as Bourne in complaining of another's impoliteness.

    (Apologies if any or all of these points were covered in your discussion with Roger: I have no training or background in philosophy and thus have a tendency to miss the point…)

    1. Thanks, Michael. I didn't mean to imply that Bourne was unreasonable or impolite in privately objecting to the wrong that was done to her, though I do agree that she was wronged. My main point was that her response was out of proportion to that wrong, and that her case provides a good illustration of how common-sense responses quite often fail to track what matters.

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